The Boston Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday with a rousing 115-105 Game 7 win over the Washington Wizards.
For the Celtics, it marks a significant landmark — four years after blowing up their championship core of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, the team is back in the NBA’s final four.
The accomplishment is also significant because the Celtics famously decided to “stand pat” at the trade deadline, opting to not trade for star wings such as Jimmy Butler or Paul George with their bevy of assets.
I, like some others, questioned that decision. The Celtics own all of their own draft picks going forward, plus the Brooklyn Nets’ next two picks, almost certainly top-three picks and likely No. 1 this year. They have max cap space this summer and an arsenal of valuable, but expendable role players to throw into trades. Why not make a move for a missing star now and take the next step?
The Celtics decided to take a gamble on their team as it was. They were betting that 5-foot-9 point guard Isaiah Thomas could continue to carry the offence in the postseason, that Al Horford could anchor the middle, that they could get enough juice from any one of their wings to provide meaningful contributions.
The gamble on Thomas, in particular, has looked smart. Things change in the playoffs — defences tighten up, opponents game plan to take away players and teams’ strengths, and some regular-season magic disappears. I doubted whether Thomas could continue to get into the lane at will or continue to hit audacious pull-up threes or quite as many spot-up looks as he did en route to averaging 29 points per game in the regular season.
Instead, Thomas has continued to be an offensive marvel. He’s averaging 25 points on 44% shooting, 34% from three — reasonable drops in efficiency for the playoffs. He’s still getting to the free throw line eight times per game, hitting 83% of his attempts, and his percentage of shots at the rim has increased slightly. With Thomas on the floor, the Celtics are still scoring 110 points per 100 possessions, actually a tick higher than their overall regular-season mark. In short, it may be time to stop wondering when Thomas will cool off and start accepting that he’s a point guard capable of carrying an offence, despite his size and bold game.
Others have stepped up to the plate, too. Avery Bradley has been fantastic, hounding opposing guards on defence while hitting 38% of his threes to average 15 points per game, providing Thomas with needed scoring help. Ditto for Marcus Smart. Al Horford has stepped up his rebounding and has improved his efficiency considerably by shooting closer to the basket more. Reserve guard Terry Rozier is an eye-popping +86 in 195 playoff minutes.
Critics of the Celtics’ decision to stand pat at the trade deadline argued that this current core had not proven they would win a playoff series yet. Why would the Celtics’ front office stay so committed to a team that had yet to achieve anything significant? In making the conference finals, the Celtics have now proven there’s a true foundation to build around and it sets them up even better for the future.
The Celtics still have their draft picks coming. A team like the Pacers, who were swept by the Cavs in the first round, may want revisit those Paul George trade talks, with George hitting free agency in 2018. The Celtics could likely lower the price on a star like George, given his uncertain future and the Pacers’ potential desperation to get something back for him.
However, the Celtics are no longer under pressure to pull off any sort of blockbuster trade for a star. As mentioned, they have max cap space this summer and could add a player like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin without giving up assets. After proving that this core can contend in the East, the Celtics will become a more attractive free agent destination.
The Celtics have nothing to lose against the Cavs. The Cavs will be heavily favoured, and even if they sweep the Celtics, Boston has already achieved something significant. They have a talented core locked up and the ability to add a top-three pick and star free agent this offseason. Danny Ainge’s patience and long game has appeared to pay off and there may not be a team in the league with a brighter future.
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